Tuesday, December 27, 2011
NFC North Stock Watch
By Kevin Seifert
1. Secondary play in Chicago and Minnesota: Between the two of them, the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings have maybe one or two defensive backs who should be considered 2012 starters heading into the offseason. Bears cornerback Charles Tillman qualifies, and perhaps Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield will as well if he returns healthy from a fractured collarbone. Otherwise, the Bears and Vikings need a serious overhaul to their defensive backfields. Both teams tried season-long rotations at safety, neither of which led to any personnel conclusions, and cornerback play outside of Tillman has been atrocious for both teams. It will probably be a multiyear process for these franchises to rebuild these positions. With Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler in this division, they better hurry.
2. Christian Ponder, Minnesota Vikings quarterback: We all remember ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer's harsh criticism of Ponder shortly after the draft. In brief, Dilfer said Ponder looks the part of an NFL quarterback but quickly falls from his comfort zone and loses accuracy under pressure. Dilfer softened some of that analysis after Ponder's relatively strong debut, but we should note that Ponder has been one of the NFL's worst quarterbacks against extra pass-rushers this season. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he is completing about 39 percent of his passes when opponents send five or more pass-rushers. The only player with less success against the blitz? Denver Broncos quarterback/running back Tim Tebow. It's not necessarily a warning sign if a rookie doesn't perform well under pressure, but to this point Ponder's performance hasn't veered much from Dilfer's original analysis.
3. Marion Barber, Bears running back: Barber's mental errors in a loss earlier this month to the Broncos, and his inability to keep his troublesome calf healthy, would seem to spell the end of his short tenure with the Bears. Kahlil Bell's hard-charging 123-yard performance Sunday night offers the Bears a much younger option for the role of backing up starter Matt Forte. It was a nice run, as they say.
Brandon Pettigrew has been a productive weapon for the Lions this season.
1. Home-field advantage: The Packers have a quirky history when it comes to playing at home in the playoffs. In the big picture, the state of Wisconsin has provided one of the best home-field advantages in professional sports. The Packers are 15-3 all-time at home in the playoffs, including games played in Milwaukee. But those three losses have come in their past five playoff games at home: In 2003 to the Atlanta Falcons, in 2004 to the Vikings and 2007 to the New York Giants. One of the two victories, meanwhile, came in overtime to the Seattle Seahawks. Recently, at least, opponents haven't been intimidated by playing at Lambeau Field.
2. Brandon Pettigrew, Detroit Lions tight end: A significant debate erupted in 2009 when the Lions used the No. 20 overall pick to draft Pettigrew, passing up offensive lineman Michael Oher and receiver Percy Harvin, among others. But the Lions insisted that a multi-faceted tight end was critical to their offense, and they have followed through by utilizing Pettigrew as much as any team in the NFL. The Lions have used him as an extension of their running game, and although he is averaging a modest 8.7 yards per reception, his total of 76 catches ranks third among tight ends. By all accounts, Pettigrew is an excellent blocker as well. The Lions have gotten by this far with Jeff Backus and Gosder Cherilus as their tackles, minimizing the need for Oher. And while Harvin would have been a nice addition, the Lions have found value by signing veteran Nate Burleson and using a second-round pick to draft Titus Young.
3. T.J. Lang, Green Bay Packers offensive lineman: When the season began, how many people would have chosen Lang as the Packers' most valuable offensive lineman? Not me. Lang had been an inconsistent starter and player who couldn't find a position and was behind a rookie on the depth chart when the season began. But Lang outplayed first-round pick Derek Sherrod in camp to win the left guard job and has provided a seamless transition from departed starter Daryn Colledge. And when the Packers needed someone to jump over to right tackle after injuries to Bryan Bulaga and Sherrod, Lang successfully made the move. On Sunday night, at least, he held his own against Bears pass-rushers Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije. Center Scott Wells might be the Packers' best offensive lineman this season, but not many left guards could jump out to right tackle as well as Lang appeared to do Sunday night.